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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Five years later, Dirk bandwagon full

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki and Karl Malone
Like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, Dirk is stuck on the short list of MVPs without a title ring.

The List.

That's what Charles Barkley calls it in his rare PC moments.

He had another description for it in his recent visit to the B.S. Report with ESPN.com's Bill Simmons and Simmons' buddy Chuck Klosterman.

"I pull for the guys," Barkley said, "who are on the s--- list."

The Chuckster, if you haven't guessed by now, is referring to the list of the greatest players, from all over the North American sporting map, never to win a championship ring. In the NBA specifically, Nowitzki and Barkley are two of the seven MVPs in league history who are ringless, along with Karl Malone, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose and a certain LeBron James on the other side of these Finals.

"I call it the s--- list in every sport, because I know every year in the NBA playoffs or some sport that's happening, they're going to start showing the list of the greatest players to never win it," Barkley explained.

"And I always root for those guys, because I'm on that list. It is what it is. I can't take it personally. It is what it is. Dirk is on the list right now. Jason [Kidd], Karl, John [Stockton], Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing -- we're all on that list."

Which means that Barkley, as much as anybody, would understand what it means to Nowitzki to scratch out four more wins and strike himself from that list. Barkley actually went too far the other way with some over-the-top criticism in the 2009 playoffs, when he needlessly assailed Nowitzki's toughness for publicly admitting that the Denver Nuggets were stacked with rugged defenders … only for Nowitzki to shrug at the barbs about his supposed softness to average 34.4 points and 11.6 rebounds against all of the Nuggets' bangers in the face of the worst personal turmoil of his life. But that was then. No one has been louder with praise for Nowitzki this spring than Barkley.

The bigger surprise, though, is how crowded it's getting behind the self-appointed chauffeur of the Dirkwagon. This certainly isn't the first time Barkley's words have influenced public perception, but there's praise for Nowitzki emanating from a lot of places these days, not just the TNT pulpit.

An unprecedented level of fan support for the Mavs outside Dallas was a given for this rematch, thanks to the venom for James that floods into Miami from so many different precincts. After LeBron's messy departure from Cleveland last summer, Mavs owner Mark Cuban -- who was right there with Dwyane Wade on the list of lightning rods in 2006 -- is cast as a sympathetic figure this time. Almost.

Yet never before in Nowitzki's career have fellow pros gushed like this about his shot-making. Maybe that's because there was no Twitter bullhorn five years ago for players to trumpet such pronouncements on their own, but Tracy McGrady captured the increasingly frequent tone of awe from Dirk's peers with this recent rhetorical tweet: "how do u defend a lonnnng seven footer that shoots the ball behind his head AND fades away #dirk."

Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, is a Dallas native who couldn't resist coming to Game 2 of the Oklahoma City series as a spectator. Just a couple of weeks removed from the disappointment of a six-game first-round exit courtesy of the Mavs, Aldridge folded into a seat just a few rows off the floor at American Airlines Center, wanting to see for himself what sort of monster his Blazers had unleashed on the league by coming back from 23 points in Game 4 of the teams' first-round series.

Dallas has only lost once in 11 games in the wake of that collapse, sweeping Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers along the way.

"And Dirk," Aldridge joked, "hasn't missed a shot since we played them."

It seems like that sometimes. Tangible dread from opposing fans is commonplace when the Mavs are on the road, where Nowitzki tends to generate audible groans from the crowd these days as soon as he squares up to shoot.

"I thought Dirk should have been no worse than second in the MVP race," said Suns guard Steve Nash, Nowitzki's chief sidekick for six seasons in Dallas. "I think the MVP is someone who takes over games at the end. Who does that better than Dirk? And then look at their record [2-7] when he didn't play.

"He's one of the top five players in the game, but it's possible that he's still underrated."

A ring, of course, would change all that.

His old point guard would argue that it shouldn't even matter after the way No. 41 has locked in during this playoff run -- "To be honest with you," Nash said, "I'm surprised when his shots don't go in" -- but Nowitzki predictably declines to stick that trademark right leg out and kick this debate around.

"I never really worry about my legacy and 'What's going to happen if he doesn't get a ring?'" Nowitzki insists. "I want to win 'cause I'm a competitor. I want to be the best at what I do. … I want to win for Mark, this whole organization has been loyal to me, and also for the fans here. But the legacy … we can talk about that in 10, 15 years when my career is over. All that legacy stuff can wait.

"Is it going to bring my career down just 'cause I've never won it? I don't know. I guess we'll have to just wait and see after my career. But I don't think that's going to bring me down or that's what motivates me."

Different Dirk: Backbone | Backup | Bandwagon | Bond | Brain power


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